The Man Who United Irish- and Franco-Americans


It would be easy to write about the long history of strife between Maine’s Franco-American and Irish communities. The two immigrant groups fought for dominance in many of Maine’s mill towns in the 19th century, and for control of the Catholic Church in the state. Fistfights were common. However, on this Saint Patrick’s Day, it seems more fitting to examine someone who united both communities – President John F. Kennedy.

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Depart Ottawa, 18 May, 1961. Image: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

President Kennedy is perhaps the most famous Irish-American of all, but his electoral successes, not only at the national level, but also in Massachusetts, hinged on his ability to unite the constituencies in the New Deal Democratic coalition, which in New England, included Franco-Americans. The president himself acknowledged this on his first overseas visit, in an address to the Canadian parliament, in 1961:

I feel at home also here because I number in my own State of Massachusetts many friends and former constituents who are of Canadian descent. Among the voters of Massachusetts who were born outside the United States, the largest group by far was born in Canada. Their vote is enough to determine the outcome of an election, even a Presidential election. You can understand that having been elected President of the United States by less than 140 thousand votes out of 60 million, that I am very conscious of these statistics!

On overseas visits to Francophone countries, President Kennedy would regularly make an attempt to say a few words in French. He did so on the occasion of his address to the Canadian parliament, on his famous visit to France, later that same year, but also when talking with foreign leaders from newly-independent African nations. On such occasions, Kennedy tended to defer to his wife, who was a fluent French-speaker. Although Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was famously the darling of Paris when she visited the city, it’s often overlooked that her French heritage came via her great-great grandfather, Michel Bouvier, a French-Canadian cabinetmaker who settled in Philadelphia.

However, even before assuming the presidency, the importance of bridging the traditional divide between the Irish- and Franco-American communities would have been known to Jack and his family. Robert Kennedy had even had a personal encounter with Maine’s Franco-Americans, when he trained with the V-12 Naval training program at Bates College in 1944/5. Robert wrote to his friend David Hackett, that he had trouble finding a mass to attend, since most of the local churches preached in French.[1]

Bobby Kennedy (second from left) poses in front of a Winter Carnival snow sculpture of a Navy ship at Bates College. 1944 or 1945. Image: Bates College, Muskie Archives and Special Collections Library.

The Kennedys and the Bouviers were both intensely political families in Massachusetts, which in the 1950s was still a hotbed of ethnic rivalry and competition. In running first for the House of Representatives, and then for the Senate, John Kennedy made sure to campaign in the Franco-American social clubs and community halls around the state. Kennedy’s opponent, Republican US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., even went to the length of adopting distinctively French-Canadian words in his French vocabulary for his campaigns.[2]  The Kennedys maintained this approach for other family members. In Ted Kennedy 1970 re-election campaign, their mother Rose, at age 80, gave speeches in French for Ted in towns like Fitchberg, Worcester, New Bedford, and Fall River, just as she had for Jack a decade earlier.[3]

In Fall River, John Kennedy had the help of Ed Berube, a local campaign operative who became a lifelong friend of the senator and president. The Kennedy campaign was specifically looking for “a French-Canadian blue-collar” person to join the campaign. Berube, a bus driver, had a mutual friend with Kennedy in Judge Maurice Cartier of Boston. The friendship not only helped the future President’s election efforts, it also led to a windfall for a local Fall River bakery:

One day, while in Ed Berube’s company, then-Sen. Kennedy expressed interest in marriage (a bachelor getting elected senator was one thing, elected president another), a remark which likely elicited something from an eye roll to a belly laugh from Berube, who knew JFK as a ladies’ man. “My dad told him, ‘You’ll never get married. If you get married, I’ll buy your wedding cake,'” Ron Berube said.

Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and John F. Kennedy cut their wedding cake during their reception. Newport, Rhode Island, 12 September 1953. Image: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

When Kennedy announced his engagement to Jacqueline Bouvier, Berube was true to his word, and ordered a wedding cake from Plourde’s bakery, in Fall River.











Mainers will be well aware of President Kennedy’s campaign stops in the state – which included Franco-American centers such as Lewiston and Augusta. These towns were also Democratic centers, but it seems unlikely that the presence of large Franco-American populations was lost on the Senator. Appropriately enough, on Kennedy’s campaign tour of Maine he was accompanied by Senator Ed Muskie (of polish descent), and Lucia Cormier, a Franco-American who was running for US Senate. The Kennedy family were successful both at overcoming prejudice against Catholic Americans, and in uniting a variety of Democratic voters within the Catholic community. Without the support of Franco-Americans, America might not have had its most famous Irish-American president.



[1] Robert Kennedy and His Times, Arthur M. Schlesinger, p58

[2] Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography, Burton Hersh, p159

[3] Rose Kennedy: The Life and Times of a Political Matriarch, Barbara A. Perry,

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.